began one sweltering summer day in 1999.
I had been in Taiwan — the country in which my mother had grown up — for 15 months by that point. I lived with my aunt's family in a relatively large city, but with limited access to English-language books and Western-style food, and on this summer day, I just wanted to spend some time in the big
city, have a bagel, and find a copy of the New York Times
. So I took the train north to the capital city of Taipei.
Yes — I found my bagel and newspaper. And after that, wandering around the area near the train station, I stumbled into a small museum that had recently opened. Some of the exhibit was in English, relying on the eyewitness account of George Kerr, former American Vice-Consul in Taiwan, as well as reports from Western newspapers, to tell the story. In gruesome detail, Kerr discussed a massacre that had taken place in Taiwan in 1947. He spoke of castrated young men left on mountain roads and waterways clogged with bodies. The museum claimed that 10,000 to 20,000 Taiwanese had disappeared or been murdered by Chinese Nationalist forces during a month-long sweep of possible opponents to Nationalist rule. Until 1987 — 40 years — it had not been publicly discussed in Taiwan; in fact, to speak of it had been a crime.
I left the museum, stunned. How could an event of this scale be kept a secret by an entire nation?
As my novel's narrator comments, "The event had not even existed until I'd heard the story. It happened this way for each of us, one by one, across the island, a structure suddenly exploding onto the placid empty plain of our history." Indeed, when I asked my mother about it, she said brusquely: "I've never heard of it."
Was this a reflexive denial, a kind of ingrained self-preservation? My mother had grown up in Taiwan during "The White Terror" — a time in which every citizen was encouraged to spy on each other, no one could be trusted, and one wrong word could send a family member to prison. Perhaps this was why, throughout my childhood, she'd often admonished me to keep our family business private.
Though I began to break through to some of this hidden history, the decades of silence and fear were hard to let go; one woman I interviewed, still afraid of the repercussions, would not let me even write down her name.
Or perhaps "I've never heard of it" was an honest response? It's possible my mother actually did not know this history — my family had been part of the wave of Chinese that, following the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, had fled the Chinese Communists in 1949 and arrived in Taiwan, intending their stay to be temporary. My mother — and the five siblings that followed her — were born in Taiwan, yet my grandparents always looked "home" to China, even as they lived out the rest of their lives in Taiwan.
I couldn't forget the story I found in that museum, even as I continued on to graduate school and wrote my first novel, Water Ghosts
. I decided that I had to return to Taiwan. I applied for a Fulbright grant with a proposal to write a novel about this massacre.
Three years after I first came upon the 228 Memorial Museum ("228" refers to the date that the events leading to the massacre began), I was back in Taipei to begin my research. A lot had changed. The dialogue about the massacre had opened up; survivors and family members of the victims were even petitioning for government reparations.
Research in Taiwan — for an outsider — is not necessarily straightforward. On this topic, especially, people were wary. I enrolled in daily Mandarin language classes, trying to improve my fluency to a point where I could conduct oral history interviews and read sources on my own. I relied on guanxi
, the personal connections by which nearly everything in Taiwan happens, to find interviewees. I spoke to the children and friends of victims, as well as men who had been imprisoned. Though I began to break through to some of this hidden history, the decades of silence and fear were hard to let go; one woman I interviewed, still afraid of the repercussions, would not let me even write down her name.
Near the end of my Fulbright year, a mysterious illness hit Asia. SARS. Suddenly, we were required to wear masks everywhere, and nurses took our temperatures before we could enter any public building — school, department stores, the subway. The virus — something that looked like a cold but could turn fatal — grew more insidious: hospitals were quarantined, stores shut down, the streets disinfected with dystopian-looking machines. The Fulbright office gave us the option of leaving and returning later in the year to finish our grants, but I was determined to wait it out.
One day, as I was trying to make a transfer at the main subway station — a place usually so chaotic and crowded that a newcomer will get spun in a dozen directions — I looked around and saw the place was eerily empty. At that moment, I decided to return to California — but I could not stay away. The novel still called me.
A few months later, after SARS had gone mostly dormant, I returned to Taipei. I finished out my Fulbright, and then remained in Taipei, teaching English to support myself as I worked on my book. I stayed for three years. Many times, my research felt like kismet — sources turned up at just the right time, names I read in books one week would then be passed on to me as interviewees the next; my life crossed paths with fiction and history in myriad small ways. For example, I discovered that the house at the end of my block had belonged to one of the most brutal generals of the massacre, the "Butcher of Kaohsiung." I felt like I was unraveling history.
I became more involved in the fabric of Taiwan's political life, attending marches and protests — protests for membership in international entities such as the UN and protests against China's rhetoric of "one country, two systems." The range of ordinary citizens who took part in these events impressed me. Many of the protestors were not stereotypical young bohemian idealists, but middle-aged men and women who remembered what it was like to pay for one's beliefs with one's life.
When I moved back to California in 2005, I began the second phase of my research by speaking to Taiwanese immigrants about their experiences in Taiwan and in America. Many of my interviewees had come on the wave of graduate students in the 1960s and '70s, and had been blacklisted from returning to Taiwan because of their political activity while in the United States urging for Taiwanese democracy. They also told me stories of the "professional students" who were sent to spy on them. Even in the United States, on college campuses during the period of the "Free Speech Movement," these students had to watch what they said, and to whom.
Finally, two true stories informed my novel and provided the inspiration for the character Jia Bao. The first was the story of Henry Liu, an American citizen from Taiwan, who was murdered in his driveway in Daly City, just outside of San Francisco, by gangsters hired by the Chinese Nationalists. His story helped me see how the most "outlandish" plot twist — foreign agents committing assassination on American soil — could actually transpire in real life. The second was the story of Taiwan Independence leader Peng Ming-min, who successfully escaped house arrest in Taiwan to live freely in the United States. After a 22-year exile, he returned to a democratic Taiwan to run for president.
"Green Island," the novel's title, is based on a song — and more than that, it's based on a place. The origins of the song "Green Island Serenade" are disputed — some claim it is a simple love song; others maintain that it was composed on Green Island, the site of Taiwan's notorious political prison. Yet others read revolution in its lyrics, and see the "Green Island" of the title to be Taiwan itself, an island that became a prison for all of its citizens during 40 years of martial law. The novel draws together all these threads.
It took 14 years from conception to final manuscript — 14 years to think deeply and with love about the characters and the circumstances that shaped not only them but a nation. This book is fiction, but I hope it honors the very real, steadfast spirit of the people of Taiwan.
÷ ÷ ÷
Shawna Yang Ryan
is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Green Island
and Water Ghosts
. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA
, The Asian American Literary Review
, Kartika Review
, and Berkeley Fiction Review
. She lives in Honolulu.